The Magazine

Master of the Games

The shrewd eye, and elegant prose, of Red Smith.

Oct 14, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 06 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Red Smith was considered the thinking man’s sportswriter. He abhorred clichés. He commanded an impressive, sometimes bordering on the ornate, vocabulary. He specialized in striking similes. He called in irony when the occasion required it, which in sports was frequently. And he did all this within the confines of plain style—without the excessive use of subordinate clauses or dashes, and without any semicolons whatsoever. As a prose stylist, Smith could, as they say about the great infielders, pick it. 

Unlike so many of the talented newspaper writers among his near-contemporaries—James Thurber, E. B. White, John O’Hara, A. J. Liebling—Red Smith had no wish ever to rise above writing for newspapers. He thought of himself as essentially a reporter. He once claimed that he’d rather go to the dentist than write a book. Of the difficulty of writing, he remarked that “all you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” When asked how long it took him to write a column—and it is estimated that he wrote roughly 10,000 of them—he answered: “How much time do I have?” 

Walter Wellesley Smith was born in 1905 in Green Bay, Wisconsin, 14 years before the Packers came to town and put the place on the map. He went to Notre Dame and then directly into journalism. A Midwesterner by birth and upbringing, he eventually became what I think of as a naturalized New Yorker: one of those people who, whatever their geographical origins, found their spiritual home in New York and, with it, a comfortable seat at the bar at Toots Shor’s. 

Red Smith wrote on all the standard sports, following the calendar of the country’s sports seasons and major events. Every fourth year he broke his normal rhythm by going off to the Olympics. He wrote a lot about boxing in the day when no sporting event had greater interest than that of a heavyweight title fight. He thought boxing “a rough, dangerous, and thrilling sport, the most basic and natural and uncomplicated of athletic competitions, and—at its best—one of the purest of art forms.” (Today, of course, boxing is considered the purest form of barbarism, and attracts minimal interest.) He was also excellent on thoroughbred racing, and he wrote a fair amount about fishing for trout and bass, a sport he loved and the only one in which he acknowledged participating. 

He wrote most on baseball, which he loved, and on which he was splendid. He was good on track and field and golf, but not quite so fine on football. His view of hockey was implicit in the old joke: “Went to a fight last night and a hockey game broke out.” Basketball he loathed, once remarking that he would rather drink a Bronx cocktail (a martini with orange juice and maraschino cherry added) than go to a basketball game. He was wrong about this, I believe, and might have felt differently had he lived into the era of the graceful giants, the Magics and Michaels and LeBrons.

How does the best of Red Smith’s writing, all written for the next day’s paper, ultimately to be used for wrapping fish, hold up? This handsome collection of his writings—the earliest of which is dated September 30, 1934, the latest January 11, 1982, or four days before his death—has been assembled with skill and care by Daniel Okrent. A literary man of all work, Okrent has supplied a useful introduction to the volume; the author’s son, Terence Smith, a former CBS and New York Times journalist, has written a gracious afterword. With the exception of an opening article called “My Press-Box Memories,” none of the columns in this book runs to more than 800 or 900 words. (What might the result have been, one wonders, if Red Smith had extended himself to compositions of 5,000 or 10,000 words?) Some of the columns are organized by decade, some by particular sport, and others by simple chronology. 

Of the legendary American sportswriters—Grantland Rice, Jimmy Cannon, Frank Graham, John Lardner—Red Smith holds up best. Part of this is owing to his temperament: He knew how best to distance himself from his subject; he understood that he was writing about sports, not the world economy. And unlike A. J. Liebling writing about boxing, Smith, in his coverage of sports, never seemed to be slumming. When he came up against hypocrisy or chicanery—the former on the part of baseball owners, the latter on the part of basketball point-shavers and others—he was properly stern in his condemnations. When he was sentimental, as in describing the installation of old ballplayers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, he recognized it. “Even a toad would be moved,” he noted in describing the privilege of election to the hall.